Stalking the Hungry Ghosts

Sick of chaos and insatiable craving, more and more St. Louisans are seeking out the quiet subversions of Buddhism

May 17, 2000 at 4:00 am

Scrunching back the sleeves of his white lab coat, Jon Burrows reaches into a cage, isolates a mouse and picks him up by the scruff of his neck, drawing up the skin as gently as possible. In the other hand, Burrows holds a gavage needle, its point blunted in a tiny ball so it doesn't perforate the rodent's delicate throat tissue. He tilts the mouse's head back, aligning throat and stomach, and inserts the needle, slowly expelling the contents of the syringe into the mouse's swelling stomach. Then he bends closer and whispers a mantra, pleading with enlightened beings to purify the animal's negative karma.

A postdoctoral fellow at Washington University School of Medicine, Burrows is sufficiently brilliant to forestall mockery. He's also consummately Anglo, tall and fair-skinned, with a strong jaw and a softened British accent. You'd figure him as a mild Protestant secretly fond of the old hymns, not a Tibetan Buddhist worried about sacrificing mice.

If you were talking about his childhood, you'd be right: Burrows loved playacting Bible stories in a Methodist Sunday School outside London. "I drifted away at the point where we had to start memorizing things," he shrugs. "There wasn't a lot of room to think for yourself after that." Through grad school, he diverted all inquiry to science. Then he came to St. Louis, signed up for an aikido class to burn stress and found himself at a classmate's Tibetan Buddhist gathering, listening to people talk about "compassion, tolerance, the idea that people walk a fine line between happiness and suffering in this life, and a lot of it depends on your perspective."

Burrows had reached the same conclusions on his own, watching friends' moods soar and plummet, noticing how they all craved love, raced after approval, attached themselves to things. Now he'd found a tradition that had been evolving for thousands of years to address this very problem. Best of all, it was scientific, urging practitioners not to memorize answers to unanswerable questions but to experiment for themselves.

Learning to meditate helped him solve scientific problems. It also made him sharply aware of scientific consequences. "Buddhists don't make a distinction between the life of a human, the life of a dog, the life of a bug," he explains. "It's all what we call 'sentient being.' I routinely, when I go over to my in-laws, pull the ants off the surface of their pool and set them on the ground."

Just as routinely, he force-feeds drugs to mice.

"We're looking at a disease which affects the liver in young children," he explains, the scientific enthusiasm as carefully hidden and obvious as a high-school crush. "There's a protein that's made in the liver, and it's supposed to leave the liver and be transported to the lungs, where it protects against the breakdown of elastin. But with this defect, the protein doesn't fold properly, so it doesn't get out of the liver to protect the lungs; instead, it builds up and causes liver disease." The standard treatment is a liver transplant. But if Burrows and his colleagues can find a chemical compound that folds the protein more correctly, they can save kids without the transplant.

They're making progress.

But he almost quit.

"I was ready to go and tell my boss I just couldn't do these experiments," he admits. "Then I had a conversation with my lama. He said, 'Well, you could find another type of work. But is there any benefit to human society in what you're doing now?'"

"If we can prove the drug works, definitely."

"Is there any benefit to you doing these experiments and not someone else?"

Burrows shrugged. "At least I'm gentle."

"And is there any benefit to the animal?" prompted the lama.

"Well, it gets fed as much as it wants -- but it's never seen the light of day, and it gets done to it whatever you damn well please," replied Burrows crisply.

The lama nodded and kept silent for a moment, eyelids lowered. Then he said softly, "That animal is alive because of its karma."

One of the most misunderstood tenets in Buddhism, karma is not fate but the law of cause-and-effect. Karma says we get away with nothing; every thought, every action, carries consequences. Because human beings can choose their actions, they can purify their karma, but for a mouse, it's harder to break the cycle -- unless, of course, something is done to that mouse that will greatly benefit others.

Burrows left relieved. But his relentlessly thoughtful Buddhist mind keeps returning to the problem. "I don't think it puts it to rest," he says. "I don't think you can take it lightly, taking the life of another being."

This country's reluctant, resistant infatuation with Buddhism began in the '60s, long before Al Gore started fundraising at Buddhist monasteries. Today the love affair's full-blown and complicated, with more than 2 million Americans practicing one of Buddhism's many forms. The Mid America Buddhist Association built its spacious new monastery in the heart of the heartland, in nearby Augusta, Mo., and St. Louis hosts three groups of Tibetan Buddhists, a Thai Buddhist Temple, a Vietnamese Buddhist Association, a Sri Lankan Buddhist Group, the Missouri Zen Center, the St. Louis Insight Meditation Group and a chapter of Nichiren Daishonin Buddhists, a global sect that focuses on Buddha's Lotus Sutra.

Eugenia Wiles, an African-American raised Baptist, "took refuge" in Nichiren Daishonin as a 30-year-old doctoral student at Washington University. She'd divorced an African husband whose culturally rooted jealousy had provoked her to equal fury. Now she was simply trying to calm her life. But her older brother saw a bowl of fruit on her home altar and rolled his eyes: "She's praying to lettuce!" Other relatives whispered, "Is she in a cult? How much money does she give them?"

Nineteen years later, Wiles leads the metropolitan St. Louis chapter of Nichiren Daishonin, which, she estimates, has nearly 2,000 adherents. She says she can think of at least 20 classmates from the old Northwest High School, up on Riverview, who are now practicing Buddhists.

If there's any common denominator to American-born converts, it's not '60s ethereality; many are hard-driving career types, loaded with gadgets and filled with road rage. Buddhism is an antidote, a corrective so radical it strikes the people around them as downright un-American. "Try telling your friends you sit and stare at a wall for 40 minutes," a longtime Zen practitioner suggests dryly to a new crop of students. Six weeks later, they speak in the wondering tones of someone who's fallen in love and feels utterly changed: They say they're buying less stuff, craving less alcohol; one woman has stopped turning on the TV the minute she comes home; another's stopped thrashing through each day's events in her mind, looking for ways she could have prevailed.

American culture emphasizes individuality, competition, achievement, acquisition, success and pleasurable escape. Buddhism emphasizes emotional discipline, egoless unity, subtle mindfulness and serene acceptance.

Opposites attract.

The trick is living with the differences.

David Kenyon's rifling through depositions, nailing down every detail of his trial argument, when the phone rings. It's another client, who happens to be his tai chi master, and Kenyon feels his frame of mind split like a big-screen TV with an inset tuned to a different channel. The tai chi master's voice restores him to the world of "not letting your mind be attached to anything, just being calm." Yet the practice of law requires "a mental energy with a kind of push; you've got to make this happen."

"It's an ego thing," he admits later, over lunch at a nearby restaurant. "The problem is, you can forget that what you are pursuing are merely goals and figments of your imagination. You can talk yourself into thinking this stuff is real, and the next thing you know, you've wasted your whole life chasing after things that don't matter. In Buddhism we say nothing inherently exists; there is only a pattern of relationships, determined by your mind." Kenyon picks up his coffee cup, waving it so high the waiter thinks he wants a refill. "In our culture, this is a cup," he says. "But if you grind it down far enough, you find that it's really atoms. If you examine an atom, you find it's energy with a lot of space. That is our whole reality."

Kenyon sought out Buddhism for the same reason he sought out law: control. "I wanted to understand the laws of nature and the laws of life, so that I could manipulate them to my own benefit!" He learned the focused concentration, the mindfulness, the refusal to rely on illusion. Then an odd thing happened: He started to lose confidence in the "me" that had fueled his quest. It was pure concept, a defensive creation of the mind, and shoring it up was the root of conflict and suffering. "If I were to reduce my life's desire to one sentence, it would be, 'I want to live in peace,'" he says now. "The reason we have all this chaos is because people we consider to be completely rational are not able to understand the workings of their own minds.

"The interesting thing about ego, especially in our culture, is that once we have decided there is a 'me,' automatically there's a 'them,'" he adds, glancing involuntarily at his turned-off cell phone. "The very practice of law is about conflict; our judicial system evolved out of the medieval jousts, where might made right. Now you just throw two intellectual positions at each other, and the weakest is supposed to fail."

To avoid the clash, Kenyon redefines his practice of law as resolving conflict. Then he explains the subtle difference to his clients: Yes, professional ethics require him to be a zealous advocate, but that zeal (he calls it his "pit-bull aspect") will push toward resolution, not victory at any cost. With that basic contradiction reframed, everything else flows: Buddhist detachment translates into legal objectivity; Buddhist mindfulness meshes with a lawyer's natural vigilance for lies or discrepancies; and courtroom strategy takes on fresh significance. "Most of the battle is getting people over their emotions, to get them to a point where they can agree with you," notes Kenyon. "The way that's practiced by most lawyers, though, is just blatant manipulation, moving mental furniture around to decorate the room the way you want it." He reaches for the cup again, rotating it first to the right, then to the left, ending each time with the handle centered. "Compassion is a fairly delicate thing. It gets lost in the churning of your mind."

Kenyon only has to meditate to rejuvenate compassion; what he struggles with is anger. "Seeing someone deliberately inflict suffering can put me into a state of rage that destroys any calm," he admits. "The irony is, when I'm that angry I become exactly the same person as the person who is inflicting suffering." He went twice to take teachings from the Dalai Lama, "a man who's watched 1.2 million of his people tortured and murdered, watched nuns have cattle prods stuck in their orifices until they were electrocuted ... and I have yet to hear him say one unkind word about the Chinese. He has such a clear insight into his own mind that he can let his anger pass like a floating cloud. Mine passes like sludge -- I get stuck in it and have to go home and take a bath."

Like Burrows, Kenyon belongs to Kagyu Droden Kunchab (KDK), a group of Tibetan Buddhists with branches in San Francisco and St. Louis. Originally drawn to other forms (his college nickname was "Zen Kenyon") he switched to this group after meeting its founder, Lama Lodru Rinpoche. "He sends no vibe; you don't even know he's there," marvels Kenyon. "He used to sneak up on the aikido mat and scare the bejesus out of me. He wasn't personable or funny or any of the things we consider to be charming. There was just something about him that was so completely uncomplicated."

This spring, Lama Lodru has spent a month in St. Louis, staying with a young KDK couple in a little brick house in Maplewood. Lodru leads guests up the narrow steps to the slanted top story, well away from ringing phones, and sits opposite them on a straw mat. Asked how he thinks Buddhism will influence American culture, he says sternly, "Buddhism does not teach to change culture. Change the way you are thinking, the expression of your mind. Leave culture as it is." That said, he admits that "American culture has affected mind in negative ways. This country has so much wealth and intelligence, but people are not happy. They have no discipline. They let themselves go crazy."

Taught at Rumtak Monastery by His Holiness Karmapa Rinpoche, Lodru came to the U.S. in 1976 at the invitation of a small group of Californians. "In the beginning, no one was interested in the dharma (teachings)," he recalls. "They came to talk to me because I am Tibetan, but they never asked spiritual questions. Now, lots of people want to practice, and their questions are direct: How to have peace and calm?"

His answer is simple: Stop manufacturing ego. "We make up ourselves, and the ego becomes bigger and very solid, and we think it is real. But what we call 'me' or 'I,' when we analyze, is not there." He leans back, hands on knees, tilting his head back and narrowing his eyes. "I can meditate, get completely disintegrated in space and time and get very peaceful, and the second I say, 'Oh, I want to keep this,' it is gone. But the longer you can stay in that state of clear emptiness, the smaller your ego gets, and the less you suffer. Ego is our most terrible enemy. But we are afraid to lose it."

In ancient India, "nirvana" referred to the extinguishing of fire. Today, what rages are emotions -- anger, greed, desire, jealousy, pride -- and every time one flares, it burns a habitual pattern deeper into the psyche. That, says Lodru, is how "we create our own hell." He talks too of the Hungry Ghosts, mythical beings with withered limbs and bloated bellies. They burn with a thirst they cannot slake, yet they continue to try, each time causing themselves excruciating pain. They are, in other words, insatiable, and so are we, says Lodru, dooming ourselves to frustration by pursuing fleeting pleasures.

Americans are growing tired of the cycle, he concludes. Asked whether he has to fend off lama groupies these days, he allows himself a small smile. "Sometimes. But if they study long enough, they will figure it out." His own worries run deeper: "This country has so much freedom, and I think it is very dangerous for the teachings. Here you can make your own temple and say, 'This is Buddhism,' and the real Buddhism will go away. That's why it's so important to receive teachings from trained teachers -- because now, people are crazy for Buddhism."

Outside the darkened sanctuary, water falls again and again over smooth white rocks. Inside, the cross-legged students note every rush and trickle, hypervigilant as cattle before a storm. Unused to near-silence, their "beginners' minds" race: Why's that fountain so loud? Are anybody else's ankles throbbing? How soon will that damned bell ring? Taking each stray thought as failure, they try even harder, breathing as slowly as they know how, sitting as quietly as they can. When an older guy finally gives into impulse and gulps phlegm, you can hear the saliva rearranging itself.

The gong brings release. Dr. Rosan Yoshida, founder of the Missouri Zen Center in Webster Groves, watches the beginners stretch and wince. At first, his own straight-backed immobility looks like a reproach, but then his relaxed voice reassures them. An ordained Zen priest and scholar of comparative religion, Yoshida made his peace with Americans' distractibility long ago. He talks to the students about Buddhism's history, its difference from most organized religion, its famous emptying-out of ego. But mainly he talks about breathing, how nice it is to feel the air coming in and going out, and think of nothing more.

The instant he invites questions, a woman raises her hand: "Aren't we going to study about philosophy? And the psychology of Zen? Are there books we should be reading to help us reach the goal?" Her questions pop up one after another, faster and faster, sliding past Yoshida like ducks in a carnival game -- but he won't be drawn in. He regards her steadfastly, his expression mildly puzzled. Finally one of the longtime members urges the woman to just focus on her breathing and let everything else fall into place.

Hard concept for an American to grasp.